CBS tried to defuse outrage over "The Reagans" on Tuesday by moving the two-part historical drama to pay-cable network Showtime, setting off a chain reaction of arguments over the squabble's significance.
The winners, particularly conservatives who mobilized against the miniseries through cable TV, radio talk shows and the Internet, called CBS' retreat a victory for ordinary Americans over an elitist network that was about to attack a beloved, dying president in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease.
The losers, particularly liberals who have spent decades fending off allegations by conservatives that their opinions shape the entertainment industry, bemoaned the network's decision as near-censorship.
"The Reagans," which was to have aired Nov. 16 and 18 during the highly promoted "sweeps" month, instead will appear on Showtime -- with a vastly smaller audience --
sometime next year. Showtime's president of entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, said Tuesday that the channel would continue to work with the producers to come up with a final version "that will contain the essence of their vision."
CBS explained the shift to Showtime by saying in a statement that "a free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view." In addition to airing the miniseries, Showtime is planning to schedule a "public forum" so the program can be debated after its airing.
The current structure of broadcast ownership, in which networks are no longer independent corporate entities, spared CBS from a more difficult decision: whether to kill the program entirely. The network and Showtime both are owned by Viacom Inc.
Most of the opponents of "The Reagans" said they were satisfied with the move to Showtime. But Michael Paranzino, a Washington political consultant who said he collected 100,000 names on a boycott-CBS Web site, said he hoped Viacom also would pull the drama from Showtime.
"A smear is a smear, and a lie is a lie...I am already being bombarded by e-mails urging me to redirect the boycott to Showtime and other Viacom properties," Paranzino said.
Although it is unprecedented for a network to pull a show so close to its scheduled broadcast, political considerations have had a long history of influence in programming decisions.
CBS' "Playhouse 90" turned a racial hate crime into a Western in 1958 because the sponsor did not wish to have a black victim. NBC's "Roe vs. Wade" in 1989 saw at least 10 sponsors withdraw; the network responded by saying it would run the program without commercials if needed. ABC's 1983 "The Day After," a drama about the nuclear destruction of Lawrence, Kan., caused some ABC stockholders to ask whether it was Soviet propaganda. CBS' "The Atlanta Child Murders" in 1985 became controversial because of alleged factual liberties.
But in no case was the show pulled or shifted to another, less visible location.
"Is this what we call censorship?" asked Judith Polone, president of movies and miniseries for Lions Gate Television. "I think it's a good question to ask." But, Polone added, "if a network doesn't like your movie and doesn't want to air it, that's their choice. They're the ones who pay for it."
Still, some writers and producers said the move represented another dispiriting development in a business where art is already constrained by advertiser concerns. Several suggested that CBS might have been willing to abandon "The Reagans" because it feared negative reviews on top of the political furor.
When the Reagan movie was first announced, it was described by executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, as "an unauthorized and unvarnished look at the Reagan presidency" and Nancy Reagan's role in it. The script was based on "First Ladies," a book by Carl Anthony, a former speechwriter for Mrs. Reagan.
In an interview with Tribune Media, prepared for release the weekend the drama was to be aired, Meron emphasized that "we are filmmakers and not documentary makers. We get at the essence of what we believe the truth is...Our goal was to approach the family from an emotional level in terms of the unbelievable connection these two had with one another."
Controversy over the project erupted after the New York Times recently published a story about the script.
Conservatives --ever-protective of Reagan's image -- mobilized against CBS. They said they were outraged at scenes that portrayed Reagan as emotionally distant or prejudiced and Nancy Reagan as a controlling, protective spouse.
In an article posted Tuesday on Time magazine's Web site, Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, called the script "idiotic."
"Everyone is a caricature, manufactured and inauthentic," she said. "My father is depicted as some demented evangelist, going on about Armageddon every chance he gets. My mother is cast as a female Attila the Hun, and I and my siblings are unrecognizable to me."
Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, who co-hosts an MSNBC show, said Tuesday's decision by CBS to yank the project from the network was "a triumph for Middle America in terms of its protest against a hatchet job on a beloved president who is on his deathbed." CBS "got what they wanted...a hot, controversial show," Buchanan said.
Some of that controversy was fueled by the casting of James Brolin to portray Reagan. His wife, singer-actress Barbra Streisand, is a liberal activist with deep ties to the Democratic Party.
"It would be difficult to overestimate the hostility that exists" toward Streisand among conservative radio listeners, said syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved.
Brolin's manager, Jeff Wald, said his client was dismayed by the uproar. "He never did this with any political consideration. This was an acting job."
Wald said Streisand "never read the script, and only visited her husband on the set once." In a statement, Streisand blamed "an organized Republican spin machine" for the network's decision to pull the miniseries.
But Reagan biographer and veteran political reporter Lou Cannon said it would be misleading to characterize the protest as strictly conservative.
"I've been surprised by the number of people who spoke to me who were by no stretch of the imagination Reagan fans, but simply thought [the timing of the drama] was hurtful CBS was being chewed up on several fronts: political, economic, academic."
Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Susan King and Paul Brownfield contributed to this report.